The Text observed
Both Jesus and his message seem to have lost the power to disturb us. So like eavesdroppers on someone else’s conversation, like onlookers in someone else’s drama, we fail to comprehend the truly shocking picture that Mark, alone among the gospel writers, paints for us in chapter 3:20-35. Mark, like Jesus, does not mince his words.
Following his baptism Jesus has been touring the countryside healing and preaching. His healings are not the 1st century equivalent of Medecins Sans Frontieres or Doctors Without Borders. Jesus’ healings are not about healthcare to the poor. Jesus healings are radical actions that reveal God’s head-on confrontation with a society that enshrines religion and social convention as mechanisms to privilege power and exclusion.
In Jesus, God confronts and affronts us. Because of the domestication of Jesus and his message, by which I mean the prevailing image of Jesus as a 1950’s, white, middle class, suburban-values American, we no longer have to fear his message or be disturbed by his actions.
In today’s episode
Jesus comes home again and you could cut the tensions with a knife. Bodies crush together like fans at a rock concert. The density is such that no one has even enough room to lift their arms to pass food from hand to mouth. The intensity of the atmosphere electrifies the crowds as they witness Jesus’ condemnation at the hand of the religious authorities and his skillful rejoinders.
What we are seeing in these early chapters of Mark is the agents of authority, so disturbed by Jesus’ message and outrageous behavior, struggle to neutralize him. Their line of attack is to declare him bad with accusations of demonic, alliance, of being in league with Satan.
It’s not just the authorities that Jesus disturbs – they seek to characterize him as bad, i.e. demonic. Even those who know him intimately, his family, now seek to restrain him, drag him home and silence him by locking him in a back room somewhere. They want to characterize him as mad. Family honor is at stake and in tribal, patriarchal cultures the preservation of family honor is a killing matter.
Mark has no birth narrative. Unlike Matthew and Luke, in Mark there is no happy holy family presented as a parody of a modern nuclear family, blissfully living quiet and industrious lives in Nazareth out of the limelight of events. The only time Mark mentions Jesus’ family is here, and they do not present very well.
The image of Jesus’ family here is one of a clan, angry at the dishonor their wayward son is bringing upon them. So shocking is the picture Mark paints of Jesus family wanting to restrain him because he is mad that both Matthew and Luke expunge this part of the story. So shocking is this picture of family that the King James Version translates chapter 20 as: and when his friends heard it, they went out to lay hold on him: for they said, He is beside himself. His family’s concern for its honor and fear of shame become watered down to his friends concern for his well-being.
It’s bad enough that Jesus confronts the religious mores of his society by profaning the Sabbath, either by healing the sick or allowing his disciples to gather grain. He now confronts the central tenet of traditional society articulated in the cry: blood is thicker than water. His family members, who in verse 20 are prevented by the crush from restraining and carting him away, now make a second attempt. Again they can’t get near him and so send a message to him telling him that his mother and brothers are outside waiting. Jesus could have ignored their message. He could have told them to go away and leave him alone. He does neither. Instead, he challenges the assumption that blood is thicker than water. Jesus challenges blood as the sole definition for the family. The concept of family is not primarily a matter of blood, says Jesus. Family, emerges whenever persons become related to one another when the sharing of purpose and solidarity of action make expectations of God’s Kingdom a reality!
Church is big on emphasizing the importance of family. In a way that’s one of its historical functions when viewed from the perspective of the Church as the protector of social structures that ensure order and stability. Despite attempts to pretend otherwise, the concept of family is a continually contested notion that lies at the heart of the tension between Church as a societal agent and Church as the embodiment of the Kingdom of God.
As we move further into the 21st century the old 20th century structures of civil society represented by the institutions of government sponsored welfare, public education, equal access to legal redress, and Church as a privatized incubator of personal moral values, are all fracturing. A new embodiment of the civil society is emerging. As it evolves the Church becomes embroiled in what we call the culture wars, because the Church finds itself both advocate and adversary in the process of social change. There is no area more exciting or contentious, depending on point of view, as we begin to allow for a variety of different experiences of what it means to be family.
I am a parish priest serving a parish that consciously called a married gay man to be its 12th rector. The demographics of our parish comprise a strong representation among the 60+ age range alongside a burgeoning group of parents with young families, and not much in between – at least not yet. Among the young families most if not all comprise a man and a woman living in conventional married relationship.
June 7th is our end of year graduation and certificate awards in Kidzone, our educational program for K through grade 4. We are a family friendly church with every intention in the coming year of further strengthening that identity through increasing the place of musical education for children as part of our formation of the young. It’s fairly obvious to most of us what it means to be a community of families. It’s much less obvious to us what the path to becoming a community family, looks like.
Formation into community
This year we formed a program for linking kids and older adults in prayer partnerships. It was modestly successful. Most people I suspect think this a nice idea, but I wonder how many really understand how important this program is for the formation of our parish into a community family of extended relationships of substance?
For me, a parish that is friendly to the nuclear family is a community that provides for some, often very good spiritual formation of the young. This is the familiar 20th century role for the Church and the results seem to be that kids come to identify being a member of the Church as something they do when young but inevitably grow out of as part of the natural course of things. This early formation might mean that as adult parents they return to the Church because they want their children to repeat the experience. Among our 50+ aged members having raised their children in the Church most are left scratching their heads over why this seems to have had no effect on the next generation’s identification with Church.
Now the conventional answer is that the Church has failed at being interesting or arresting enough for the young as they enter into their early adult years. However this is not an answer, at most it might be a useful observation. The unanswered question is how has the Church failed and what has it failed at?
My stab at an answer to the what is to say that the Church is failing to move its members beyond the 20th century model of privatized spiritual formation for individual nuclear families. The answer to the how is that message accompanying the spiritual formation of the young is that spiritual formation is only for the young and not something ongoing for their parents. Kids seem to notice this disparity.
This shifts the focus for me away from the relatively unproblematic spiritual nurturance of the young to the more challenging need for spiritual nurturance of adults. Such life long nurturance has to go deeper than the Episcopalian love for didactic Bible study and intellectually challenging seminars held at a time of day least available to adults with young children.
They say it takes a village to raise a child. A 21st century vision is of a village needs to move beyond one in which relationships are dictated by blood, clan, or tribe, or the 20th century version of this – a comfortable, common mind.
The 21st century vision of such a village is of a community of spiritually formed persons compelled by a sense of shared purpose and solidarity of action. this seems to be Jesus’ vision of family, as reported by Mark. Community as family, rather than community of families is where water is at least as thick as blood and in many cases may, in the end, be thicker. In such a village, the young will be formed alongside adults being continually re-formed into a community where the Christian faith disturbs our complacent accommodations with the status quo. Might this not prove to be the missing element that much contemporary, family oriented church life is seeking; the intoxication where life-long spiritual formation creates a community capable of making real the expectations of the Kingdom of God.